“She stood there on the platform, waving her handkerchief.”
Something unusual was happening at Locust. Although it was early in September, and the heat and dust of a Kentucky summer still lingered in every corner of Lloydsboro Valley, the great house with its vine-covered pillars was being hastily put in order for winter closing.
Rob Moore, swinging his tennis racket as he sauntered down the avenue under the arching locust-trees, stopped short with a whistle of surprise. The tennis net was down. He had come at the Little Colonel’s invitation for a farewell game, as they were both to start to school on the morrow, she in the Valley, and he in town. He could not understand the sudden removal of the net.
Then he noticed that every hammock and garden-chair had disappeared from the lawn. Not even the usual trail of magazines and palm-leaf fans was left on the grass, to show that somebody had been spending a comfortable hour in the shade. Usually at this time in the afternoon there was a flutter of ribbons and white dresses somewhere back among the trees; but the place was deserted now. The wicker tea-table was gone from its corner on the piazza. The rugs and cushions which had filled the cosy corners behind the vines were packed away. The lace curtains were down in the long drawing-room, and, peering through the windows which opened to the floor, he saw a coloured man, busily shrouding the handsome old furniture in linen covers.
“What’s the matter, Alec?” asked Rob. “What has become of everybody?”
“Done had bad news from Ole Colonel las’ night,” answered the man. “Walkah telegraphed from Hot Springs that ole Marse’s rheumatiz is wuss, and Mis’ Sherman she’s gwine down to stay with him awhile, an’ the young ladies is gwine to bo’din’-school. We all’s fixin’ to shet up the place till Chris’mus.”
Rob gave another long whistle, shrill and loud. “Boarding-school!” he exclaimed. “Well, this is the biggest surprise out!”
His whistle was answered from the upper hall by a clear high trill, which had been the Little Colonel’s signal for him since the first summer they had played together. Giving the answering call he stepped inside the hall, and standing at the foot of the stairs peered up anxiously at the laughing face leaning over the banister-rail above him.
“Come down, Lloyd, and tell me all about it,” he demanded.
“I can’t now,” she replied, in an important tone, smiling tantalizingly at the tall, broad-shouldered boy who shook his racket at her with a threatening gesture. “Mothah has gone to town, and Mom Beck is packing my trunk. I have to show her what things to put into it. Betty is down there somewhere. She’ll take the edge off yoah curiosity. Betty,” she called, catching sight of a pink dress whisking through the lower hall, “don’t tell Rob what school we are going to. Make him guess.”
“All right,” answered Betty, with a mischievous light in her brown eyes, as she tossed back her curls and led the way out to the stone steps. “We’ll have to sit out here. All the hammocks and porch-chairs are packed away in the attic,” she explained, as she spread out the pink skirt and leaned comfortably back against one of the white pillars.
“Seems to me you’ve been in a howling hurry with your planning and your packing,” said Rob, in an aggrieved tone. “I didn’t hear a whisper of all this when I was here yesterday evening.”
“The telegram didn’t come until after you had gone,” answered Betty. “But I think godmother must have been expecting it, for in half an hour her plans were all made, and the packing began early this morning. As Papa Jack’s business will keep him away nearly all fall, there was nothing to do but close the house and send Lloyd and me to boarding-school. You can’t imagine how busy we’ve been. We are to leave to-morrow morning.”
“So are we,” answered Rob. “Oaklea looks nearly as deserted as Locust. I always hate this breaking-up time at the end of every summer.”
As he spoke, a delicious odour of hot gingerbread was wafted around the corner of the house from the distant kitchen, and he stopped to look at Betty and smile.
“What does that make you think of?” he asked.
“Of a lovely September afternoon just like this,” answered Betty, dreamily, half-closing her eyes and drawing in the fragrance with a slow, deep breath. “Of long shadows on the lawn and the sunshine flickering down through the locust leaves like gold, just as it is doing now. Of Malcolm MacIntyre sitting over where you are, thrumming on his banjo, and of Keith and you and Lloyd and me all singing ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ Is that what it makes you think of?”
“Yes, that and the chase we gave old Aunt Cindy. Wasn’t she mad when I made off with that gingerbread! I can hear her old slipper soles yet, flopping down the path after me.”
“How long ago that seems,” mused Betty, “and yet it’s only two years.”
“It surely must be longer than that,” exclaimed Rob.
“No, don’t you remember, it was just after Lloyd’s house party, when she was eleven and I was twelve. I went abroad that fall with Cousin Carl and Eugenia, and stayed with them a year. And I’ve only been living at Locust a year. Now I’m a little over fourteen and Lloyd’s thirteen; so that just makes it.”
“Thirteen yeahs and foah months exactly, if you’re talking about me,” said the Little Colonel, coming out on the porch with a plate in her hands. “I smelled the gingahbread, so I told Mom Beck I’d have to stop for refreshments, and she could finish packing by herself. I’ve piled everything on the bed that I thought I could possibly need at bo’ding-school, and that’s neahly everything I own. One needs so many things going off from home this way. Have some?”
She passed the plate to each one, and then, sitting down on the top step beside it, helped herself to a slice of the hot, spicy cake.
“Oh, Rob, we’re going to have such larks!” she began. “I’ve always wanted to go away to school, and have midnight suppahs and do the things you read about in stories. I’ve heard mothah talk about the funny things that happened at the seminary when she was a girl, till I was simply wild to go there, too. And now it seems too good to be true, that we are really going, and are to have the very same room that she had one term when grandfathah was away from home, and she boahded there in little old Lloydsboro Seminary just as we are going to do. There!” she added, ruefully, clapping her hand over her mouth. “I’ve gone and told you, and I intended to keep you guessing for an hou’ah. I knew you’d nevah think that we were going to stay right here in the Valley.”
“Of course not,” answered Rob. “You’ve been a day pupil at that old seminary for the last five years, ever since you started to school. I’d naturally suppose that when you packed up all you owned and started off to school you’d at least go out of the sight of your own chimney smoke. I don’t see where the fun is coming in. I can’t think of anything more stupid. Instead of tearing around the country on horseback after lessons, as you’ve always done, riding where you please, you’ll have to take walks with a gang of other girls with a teacher at the head of the procession. It’s great exercise, that, taking steps about an inch long and saying nothing but prunes and prisms.”
“Don’t you believe that’s all!” cried Lloyd. “We’ll have to take the walks, of co’se, but think of the time we’ll have for basket-ball. We’ll be able to play the Anchorage girls by Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t have been on the team if I’d been only a day pupil.”
“Of course we’ll miss the ponies,” Betty added. “Godmother tried to make some arrangement with President Wells to let us ride every day; but he said he couldn’t make an exception in our case without being accused of partiality. If we came as regular pupils we must conform to the regular rules, and could not have even the liberties we always had as day pupils.”
“Except in one thing,” corrected Lloyd. “We can still go to the post-office for our mail, instead of having all our lettahs pass through the principal’s hands. Mothah thought it wouldn’t be worth while to change the address for just one term, especially as she wants me to forward the mail that comes to our box for Papa Jack. He changes his address so often on these business trips that he couldn’t keep notifying the postmistress all the time, so I am to do it.”
“Well, I pity you!” exclaimed Rob, teasingly, tapping his racket against the toes of his tennis shoes. “Boarding-schools are a bad lot, all that I’ve ever heard of. Scorched oatmeal and dried apples, with old cats watching at every keyhole! Ugh!”
Both girls laughed at his scowl of disgust, and Betty hastened to say, “But we’ll have Aunt Cindy to fall back on if the fare gets too bad. That’s the beauty of staying so near home. Mom Beck is to come every Monday to get our clothes to launder, and every Saturday to bring them back and see that we are all right, and you know she’ll not let us starve. And there aren’t any old cats in this school, Rob. Miss Edith is a dear. The girls fairly love the ground she walks on, and I’m sure that nobody could be nicer and more motherly than Mrs. Gelling.”
“How about Miss Bina McCannister?” asked Rob, with a wry face. “She is cross enough to stop a clock, sober and prim and crabbed, with eyes like a fish. I went up there one day with a note from grandfather to Professor Fowler, and she gave me such a stony glare because I happened to let a door bang, that I had cold shivers down my spine for a week.”
“Oh, Rob,” laughed Lloyd. “Aren’t you ashamed to talk so? Anyhow, Miss McCannister will not bother us, because we are not in any of her classes.”
“But she’ll take her turn in trotting you out to walk, just the same. Then think what a glad procession that will be. You’ll feel like prisoners in a chain-gang.”
“Talk all you want to, if it amuses you any,” said Lloyd, passing the gingerbread around once more. “It won’t keep us from having a good time at bo’ding-school.”
“Well, I’m coming out again at Thanksgiving. There’s to be a big family reunion at Oaklea this year, and if you’ve stood the storm and still think that boarding-school life is funny, I’ll stand treat to a five-pound box of Huyler’s best. You can let that thought buoy you up through all the hungry hours between that time and this.”
“Mercy, Rob, don’t throw cold water on all our bright hopes like that,” cried Betty, springing up as she heard her name spoken in the hall. “Mom Beck wants me. She is ready to begin packing my trunk.”
“I must go in a few minutes,” said Rob, “so if you’re disappearing now, I’ll say good-bye till Thanksgiving.”
Betty held out her warm little hand. “Good-bye. ‘Be good, sweet child, and let who will be clever,’” she quoted, as Rob gave it an awkward shake.
“Practise what you preach, Grandma Betty,” he said, in a severe tone, but his blue eyes were smiling into her brown ones with a softened light in them. She had been a merry little comrade in the summer just gone, and then there was something in the brown eyes that made everybody smile on Betty.
As she turned to go she saw that the last crumb of gingerbread had disappeared, and stooping, picked up the plate. She recognized it as her godmother’s pet piece of Delft ware. “I’ll take this in before anybody steps in it,” she said.
“Thanks,” said Lloyd, lazily, without looking around, but she turned to Rob as soon as they were alone. “Betty is always so thoughtful about such things. I wouldn’t know how to get along without her now, and to think, when she first came heah to live, I wasn’t suah that I wanted her! I had nevah had to divide with anybody befoah, and I was afraid I should be jealous. But nobody could be jealous of Betty. She seems like a real suah enough sistah now, and bo’ding-school will be twice the fun because she can go with me.”
“Betty’s a brick,” agreed Rob emphatically, “the nicest girl I know, except you, but I can’t imagine her planning scrapes. She’s too much afraid of hurting somebody’s feelings for that.”
“She’s not planning scrapes. Neithah of us want to do anything really bad. We only want to stir the seminary up a bit, and make it lively. We’re growing up so fast that if we don’t have some fun soon, it will be too late. In only a few moah yeahs I’ll be through school, and then I’ll have to be a débutante and settle down to be propah and young ladified. Mom Beck always used to be telling me to ‘sit still and be a little lady,’ and if there’s anything I despised it was that.”
“How fast the shadows grow long these afternoons,” said Rob, presently, looking at his watch. “It’s nearly time for me to go. Come on down to the measuring-tree. We mustn’t forget our good-bye ceremony.”
Seven Septembers were marked on the tall locust that they called their measuring-tree. It towered above a rustic seat half-way down the avenue. Lloyd laid one finger on the lowest notch and another on the next mark a few inches above it.
“There wasn’t neahly so much difference in our heights when I was five and you six as there is now,” she said, with a little sigh. “You’re almost as tall as Papa Jack, and I’m only up to yoah shouldah. You’re growing away from me so fast, Bobby.”
Rob threw back his shoulders complacently. “Daddy says that is why I am so awkward; that my height is too much for a fourteen-year-old boy to manage gracefully. I’ll soon be through growing at this rate. Maybe after a couple of years more I’ll not have to change the mark on the tree.”
“I should certainly hope so,” cried Lloyd, “unless you want to be a giant in a side-show. Heah! Measuah me.”
She stiffened herself against the trunk of the tree, standing as erect as possible, while he stuck the blade of his knife into the bark, so close to the top of her head that he almost pinned a lock of the light hair to the tree.
“You’ve grown a lot too, this last year, Lloyd,” he said, looking down at her approvingly.
“Oh, Rob,” she cried, with a quick, wistful look upward into his face. “I don’t want to grow up. It would be so much nicah if we could stay children always.”
“We have had a lot of fun under these old locusts, that’s a fact,” he admitted, as he began cutting the date opposite the measurements he had just taken. Then he became so absorbed in trying to make the figures neatly that he said nothing more until the task was done.
Lloyd, kneeling on the rustic bench to watch him, was silent also, and for a few minutes the only sound in all the late afternoon sunshine was the soft rustling of the leaves overhead.
“If they could only stay children always!” the locusts were repeating one to another. “Children always! That is the happiest time!” Rob, intent on his carving, never noticed the stirring of the leaves, but the Little Colonel, who in a vague way always seemed to understand the whisperings of these old family sentinels, looked up and listened. As if she were one of them, she began recalling with them the scenes they had looked upon. How long ago seemed those summer days when she measured up only to the first notch. Mom Beck and Rob’s faithful old nurse, Dinah, sat on the bench where she was now kneeling, and watched the two children that the locusts were whispering about, romping up and down the avenue. How well she remembered the little blue shoes she wore, and the jingling of the bells on the gay knitted bridle, as they played horse, with Fritz barking wildly at their heels.
The locusts had watched them in all the playtimes that lay between the first and last of those seven notches, eight it would be when Rob had finished; for it was in their friendly shade they had rolled their hoops and spun their tops and played at marbles and made their kites. Here, too, they had set their target when he taught her to shoot with his air rifle, and up and down in the winter holidays they had passed with their skates over their shoulders, with their sleds dragging after them, or their arms piled high with Christmas greens. Here they had tramped, shoulder to shoulder, whistling like two boys; here they had raced their ponies; here they had strolled and played and sung together, the strong, deep friendship yearly growing stronger between them, as they yearly cut a higher notch in the bark of the old measuring-tree.
“If they could only stay children always!” whispered the locusts again, with something so like a sigh in the refrain, that Lloyd felt the tears spring to her eyes, she scarcely knew why.